Gambling Addiction: Causes, Signs & Treatment Options

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How to Recognize & Treat a Gambling Addiction

It can be difficult to accept the truth when someone you care about demonstrates problem gambling warning signs. Gambling that causes problems is problem gambling. Because the symptoms of compulsive gambling aren’t always clear — individuals with gambling addiction may not look sick, unlike someone who struggles with substance abuse — being able to identify gambling problem signs is essential.

The earlier you notice someone you care about struggling with the signs and symptoms of gambling addiction, the earlier you can ask for help. Because addiction is a progressive disease, enrolling in treatment early often results in better long-term outcomes. Learn more about the symptoms of pathological gambling.

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What Is Compulsive Gambling?

Compulsive gambling is best described as having an uncontrollable urge to gamble even though gambling has inflicted serious damage. An individual who shows signs of gambling addiction continues to bet even as it destroys relationships, reputation and career. Like drinking alcohol, gambling is frequently a legal activity. It is also readily available online.

Individuals who are addicted may feel extremely relaxed or even high as they gamble, and evidence suggests these feelings resemble what alcoholics and drug addicts crave. The relationship between gambling and feeling good is so strong it is impossible for the addicted person to feel normal without betting. If you have caught your loved one hiding debts, lying about his or her whereabouts or denying gambling even though it’s obvious, your loved one shows signs of having a gambling problem.

For some individuals, a substance abuse problem accompanies the gambling addiction. Alcohol abuse is extremely common in individuals who gamble compulsively. One study cited by the National Institutes of Health reported nearly half of individuals with gambling addiction demonstrate signs of alcohol use disorder.

This disorder may evolve as a natural byproduct of gambling because people often drink while betting. Others may use alcohol or drugs to cover up feelings of shame, guilt or embarrassment. To achieve a full recovery, these individuals must address gambling addiction plus the accompanying substance abuse problem.

There is good news. Individuals who enroll in treatment and commit to quitting gambling can make a full recovery. This includes living a satisfying lifestyle in which having fun without gambling is possible.

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Compulsive Gambling vs. Non-Compulsive Gambling

It can be difficult to identify compulsive gambling because problem gambling may initially look like normal betting. If you’re trying to figure out if someone you care about needs help quitting gambling, there are differences you can look out for.

Walk in any casino or stop by the average poker party and, chances are, you’ll find many healthy individuals having fun. Yet among these bettors are individuals who are trapped in the cycle of addiction.

Individuals with healthy gambling habits:

  • Know their limits — Whether they’re in Vegas or over at a friend’s house for poker night, non-compulsive gamblers know when to say no. They have a healthy appreciation for gambling risk, and they know there is a losing side of every bet. They accept there is no such thing as a sure thing, and they know they may lose everything they planned to bet. They consider gambling as entertainment only. They only gamble up to a predetermined limit, and they quit when they reach it.
  • Refuse to accept too much risk — Non-compulsive gamblers never bet so much they put their family, finances or reputation at risk. They are not interested in reducing losses by trying to “win it all back,” blowing through predetermined limits. If they bet too much, they don’t repeat the mistake. Non-compulsive gamblers can walk away from gambling at any time without feeling anxious or irritable. They understand reputation and relationships are the most important things in life, and compulsive gambling damages both.
  • Don’t have cravings to gamble — When gambling is not an option, non-compulsive gamblers don’t mind. Gambling is fun sometimes, but not all the time. They can walk away from gambling at any time and not feel an intense need to bet again soon. They feel satisfied with life even though they’re not gambling.
  • Can easily decline invitations to gamble — Non-compulsive gamblers can turn down invitations to bet with no problem, whether it’s a boozy Atlantic City weekend or standing Friday night cards. They can turn it down because they don’t have the money to spend on gambling, they have other plans, or they just don’t feel like going. It doesn’t matter — they can say no.
  • Don’t need to gamble to have fun — One problem in individuals with addiction is their brains get wired to prefer gambling over every other activity. Non-compulsive gamblers understand there are several options from which to choose. Gambling is just one of them.

On the other hand, compulsive gamblers:

  • Ignore predetermined limits — If your loved one promises to keep to a low limit but usually loses more, that is a problem behavior. Individuals with a gambling problem cannot stop themselves from betting more. The amount they gamble may increase over time because getting the same high requires taking more risk. Discovering your loved one lies about, denies or hides gambling losses is a big hint there’s a compulsive gambling problem.
  • Love to take outsized, unsafe risks — Problem gamblers love taking big risks and may bet more than they can afford to lose. This behavior can occur with any risk-taking activity, from betting on cards to playing the stock market. They may try to win losses back in an attempt to cover up their growing addiction. They continue to bet even when others ask them to stop.
  • Feel an intense need to gamble — Your loved one might show signs of gambling obsession, including talking about gambling more frequently, planning gambling trips or spending more time betting online. When your loved one isn’t gambling, he or she may feel irritable or anxious — but excited because the next opportunity to gamble is close.

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  • Can’t turn down an opportunity to gamble and are obsessed with finding more ways to bet — Your loved one is compelled to gamble and can’t say no. He or she may miss important family events, disappear from work or ignore other obligations because an opportunity to gamble presented itself. Your loved one ignores other activities he or she used to love in favor of gambling. He or she may start with cards and then start betting on sporting events, horses or other types of gambling. Gambling becomes the only thing that matters.
  • Can only have fun and feel good when gambling — As addiction takes hold, the bad habit takes over the brain. Problem gamblers can only feel good and relaxed when gambling. When they can’t gamble, or when they don’t have money to gamble, they feel anxious and irritable.

The Symptoms of Pathological Gambling and Problem Gambling

Although addiction professionals sometimes debate the differences between them, there are two kinds of gambling disorders: problem gambling and pathological gambling. Those with problem gambling can harm themselves or others because of their love of gambling.

Problem gambling may require treatment. It may also turn into pathological gambling if the behavior continues and symptoms are left untreated. It is important to note problem gambling doesn’t have to be a daily or weekly activity. If the gambling causes problems, it is a problem — no matter where, when or how frequently it occurs.

Pathological gamblers also harm themselves or others, but they demonstrate several additional symptoms. Pathological gamblers may behave as if they can’t lose or demonstrate signs of overconfidence. They might insist having more money would solve all their problems. Superstitions might play an outsize role in their habits.

In addition, those who gamble pathologically might have competitive or extremely energetic personalities. You might also notice workaholic-type behaviors or procrastinating until the last minute and then performing at an intense level. Other common behaviors of individuals with a pathological gambling problem include restlessness, acting bored and extravagant or manic generosity.

Clinicians verify a diagnosis of problem gambling and pathological gambling by examining 10 essential behaviors. There is some disagreement among professionals as to the differences between problem and pathological gambling, but in general, individuals who demonstrate up to five of the following signs of gambling addiction are problem gamblers. Those who demonstrate more than five signs are said to demonstrate traits of pathological gambling or gambling addiction.

Compulsive gambling warning signs include:

  1. Preoccupation — Individuals with gambling problems find it difficult to focus on anything but gambling. They may have a hard time completing tasks because thinking about gambling memories, fantasies or upcoming events is irresistible.
  1. Tolerance — Just as someone with an alcohol problem has to drink more and more to get the same feeling, compulsive gamblers must make bigger and more daring bets. Tolerance for gambling rises fast, and they can only feel high when they risk more than they should.
  1. Withdrawal — When individuals with a pathological gambling problem cannot gamble, they feel anxious, bored and annoyed. They may avoid other activities to gamble instead.

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  1. Escape — When an individual uses gambling to forget about his or her problems or to cheer up, that is problem gambling. The individual uses gambling as a way to avoid dealing with important problems or feelings of depression.
  1. Chasing — It’s inevitable an individual with a compulsive gambling problem is going to lose bets. To hide mounting losses, the individual makes more bets to try and win it back.
  1. Lying — Individuals feel embarrassed or ashamed about how much they are gambling or worried because they know they aren’t supposed to gamble. Instead of telling the truth to loved ones, they lie, hide or deny gambling.
  1. Loss of control — Deep down, they know they are struggling. They grow tired of losing money and feeling obsessed with gambling. They try to quit, but feel so uncomfortable during the first few days they go back to gambling. Relapse is a chief characteristic of addiction.
  1. Illegal acts — One of the most serious signs of a gambling addiction is breaking the law to secure funds or goods to gamble. If your loved one steals or performs other illegal acts, it’s time to get help.
  1. Risks relationships — When your loved one continues to gamble even when the behavior threatens his or her most important personal or professional relationships, it’s time to stop. This may include requests to stop gambling that go ignored.
  1. Bailout — Eventually, your loved one may lose so much money gambling he or she has to ask for financial help.

If you are still wondering whether or not you or your loved one may have a gambling addiction, take our self-diagnosis quiz here.

Comorbid Disorders: Gambling Addiction, Depression and Substance Abuse

Anyone can develop a gambling problem, but certain populations are more likely to gamble compulsively. Compulsive gambling often occurs alongside other mental health disorders, including depression and substance abuse addiction.

The more serious your loved one’s gambling problem is, the more likely he or she is to require treatment for a comorbid disorder. You can identify signs of a comorbid disorder by looking for evidence of:

  • Depression or anxiety — Common disorder signs include insomnia or sleeping too much, appetite problems, feeling sad or hopeless and mood swings. These signs also occur alongside and can result from substance abuse.
  • Schizophrenia or antisocial personality disorder — These uncommon mental health disorders are more likely to co-occur in individuals with gambling addiction.
  • Substance abuse — Alcoholism is extremely common in individuals with gambling addiction. Spending more time and money on drinking while gambling, drinking at unusual times or in unusual places, and avoiding events where alcohol won’t be served are common addictive behaviors. You’ll also notice your loved one needs to drink more and more alcohol to get the same effects. Alcoholism and drug addiction are treatable.

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Get Treatment for Gambling Addiction

No matter how serious your loved one’s gambling problem is, help is available. Many individuals with serious gambling and/or substance abuse problems have enrolled in treatment and now live satisfying and sober lifestyles.

Although self-help support groups such as Gamblers’ Anonymous help many people sustain sobriety, others find the most effective treatment includes behavioral therapy. Behavioral therapy can get to the bottom of your loved one’s need to gamble. It can also help your loved one identify and confront uncomfortable feelings and emotional triggers safely.

If your loved one suffers from a substance abuse problem or a mental health disorder, he or she may also benefit from psychotherapy or non-addictive medication. Holistic inpatient treatment programs that are qualified for dual diagnosis care can provide rehab services for gambling addiction, substance abuse and disorders such as depression and anxiety.

The program you choose may also include family therapy and recreation programs that will help your loved one enjoy a more fulfilling lifestyle. These programs typically include aftercare that helps clients stay sober after inpatient treatment ends.

Gambling Addiction Is a Chronic, Progressive Disorder

Gambling addiction is a type of mental health disorder that grows worse if left untreated. It can also trigger other use disorders, such as alcohol use disorder. All addictions, including gambling addiction, are treatable. With therapy — especially behavioral therapy — many individuals go on to lead satisfying and healthy lifestyles.

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Reviewed By:

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis

Dr. John Elgin Wilkaitis completed medical school at The University of Mississippi Medical Center and residency in general psychiatry in 2003. He completed a fellowship in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in 2005. Following this, he served as Chief Medical Officer for 10 years of Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare a private health system including a 105-bed hospital, residential treatment, and intensive outpatient services.

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